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Shanghai’s city of the doomed is doomed

SHANGHAI (UCAN): “I will throw you into Tilanqiao if you don’t behave yourself,” have been words that every child in Shanghai has dreaded hearing over the past 110 years, since the infamous Tilanqiao Prison, also known as the city of the doomed, was opened in 1903.

But Tilanqiao Prison is about to pass into Chinese folklore. Located in Shanghai’s business centre of Hongkou, the prison is to be moved outside of the nation’s biggest city as part of a redevelopment plan that will see the 33,285 square-metre site converted into a housing and shopping complex, Xinhua reported at the end of July.

Although the authorities have promised to keep the character and flavour of this British colonial prison, some fear that Shanghai is losing yet another part of its heritage.

“We must think about how many of the city’s unique memories have been lost already and prevent this from happening again,” Han Sheng, a senior political advisor, told the state-run Global Times newspaper.

Once rated the largest prison on earth, Tilanqiao, popularly known as the Alcatraz of the Orient, has had some famous guests.

It housed the foster father of former president, Jiang Zemin, and famous dissident, Lin Zhao, who was secretly executed by the Communist authorities for anti-revolutionary crimes in 1968.

Tilanqiao has also had its fair share of prominent Chinese Catholics.

Ignatius Cardinal Gong Pinmei was held in isolation for 25 years—a quarter of his long life—until he was finally released in 1986, before spending a further two years under house arrest on treason charges after he refused to renounce the pope.

While serving his life sentence, Pope John Paul II named Archbishop Gong a cardinal in 1979, a secret which was kept for 12 years. Cardinal Gong himself did not even know of his promotion until he had a private meeting with the pope at the Vatican in 1988, soon after his release from house arrest.

Simon Chen, who twice visited his father there after he was accused of being a capitalist during the Cultural Revolution, said rumors that a bishop was in Tilanqiao were rife at the time.

“My father said that inmates knew there was a Catholic bishop in the prison, but no-one ever saw him,” he said.

Father Cai Zhongxian, who was among the 200 clergy detained along with Cardinal Gong, says in his memoirs that the decision to send them all to Tilanqiao was a deliberate scare tactic used by the Communists.

Father Cai writes that his cell was like a matchbox, but with “God as my master, wherever he wants me to go, that place will be my home, even if it is a prison.”

The late Father Ignatius Xu Jian’qu, a descendant of Paul Xu Gaungqi, the first person in Shanghai to be baptised and whose beatification process is ongoing, would not talk of his time in Jilanqiao.


According to a member of his family, who requested anonymity, “He said that he always thought of the dead during his imprisonment and he believed that these souls also remembered him.”

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